On the importance of pollinators in East Africa: an interview with Whitley Gold Award winner Dino Martins

Dino MartinsDr Dino Martins is an entomologist and evolutionary biologist with a PhD in Organismic and Evolutionary Biology from Harvard University. He is also well-known in his native East Africa where he works to educate farmers about the importance of the conservation of pollinators. It is this work that recently won Dr Martins the prestigious Whitley Gold Award presented by the Friends and Scottish Friends of the Whitley Fund for Nature. His book, The Pocket Guide to the Insects of East Africa has just been published by Random House Struik. What’s more, he takes great photos, the majority of those in the book being his own.

Congratulations on winning the award – how did you become involved in entomology, and what does this award mean to you personally?

I am very honoured and deeply humbled – I take this award as recognition for the immense contribution by pollinators (mainly insects) and small-scale farmers in rural areas around the world to biodiversity. So I am receiving it I feel on their behalf. My earliest memories are of insects, as I spent a lot of time watching and chasing after them as a child. This award will enable me to scale up our work on the conservation of pollinators in East Africa, and also raise further awareness among farmers, school children and the general public on how this important ecosystem service puts food on our plates and nutrition in our bodies.

You  work extensively with the East African farmers, educating them about the importance of pollinators for healthy crop yields – what is your main message to them?

Cuckoo wasp and lycaenid butterfly on coriander flowers in Turkana, Northern Kenya – photo credit: Dino Martins
Cuckoo wasp and lycaenid butterfly on coriander flowers in Turkana, Northern Kenya – photo credit: Dino Martins

Our main message to farmers is to celebrate the biodiversity that underpins the life support systems of the planet. Farmers are our greatest allies in the conservation of biodiversity in East Africa. Most of the forest habitats, for example, are surrounded by small-scale farmers whose actions can go a long way to either protect or degrade the forests, and of course the many endemic species they are home to. We want to get farmers and everyone to understand the connection between their own lives, food production and wild insects. We do a simple experiment where we bag one flower and leave one open to insects, then watch what develops over the next few days or weeks depending on the crop. It is always uplifting to see the moment a light goes on in the farmers’ eyes when they see the connection between insects visiting the flowers and the yields they enjoy. Working to help conserve pollinators and restore habitats has seen yields increase up to ten-fold on some crops, such as passionfruit and watermelon.

Entomology may be perceived as a less glamorous area related to wildlife conservation, but it is so essential globally – what is the appeal, and the importance of your field for world biodiversity?

Honeybee on the blackjack weed (Bidens pilosa) in the Kerio Valley Kenya - photo credit: Dino Martins
Honeybee on the blackjack weed (Bidens pilosa) in the Kerio Valley, Kenya – photo credit: Dino Martins

As Professor E. O. Wilson stated so eloquently some time ago: “Insects are the little creatures that run the world”. This is more true than ever in Africa where the large mammals are important, but also depend on insects that pollinate wild plants, disperse seeds, help build soil and recycle nutrients through the whole ecosystem. Understanding biodiversity is essential for sustainable development and conservation in Africa today. I feel that we are uncovering a previously ‘hidden’, somewhat unrecognised sphere of biodiversity: that of the rural farming landscape. When farmers create hedgerows of natural plants, protect patches of forest or grassland, or work together to create on-farm habitats we are finding that some of these landscapes are especially rich in pollinators. For example, on one mango farm in the Kerio Valley we have recorded over 1,000 different species of flower-visiting insects. This farmer harvests up to 12,000 mangoes weekly that earn him thousands of dollars. Without pollinating insects there would be no income on this farm. Watermelon farming brings in over 10 million US $ annually to just one county (Baringo) in Kenya’s Rift Valley. Scaling this up globally means that a huge part of our food production and especially high-value crops like nuts and berries are dependent on wild insects.

Do you feel confident that enough is being done to protect our pollinators?

There is a lot of interest in pollinators today that has come about from regional initiatives, including the Global Pollination Project managed by the Food and Agricultural Organisation of the United Nations. There is also an on-going assessment of pollinators by the IPBES (I am a coordinating lead author for one of the chapters). Locally, many farmers, gardeners, beekeepers and enthusiasts are working to create habitats, provide nesting sites and learn about the pollinators around them. This is very inspiring and heart-warming to see. In East Africa, where we have a huge diversity of bees and other insects, one of the challenges is actually just identifying them, and this is where we are working with farmers – so that they can recognise that the diversity on their farms is of direct benefit to them and their families. Major challenges remain in terms of better understanding and managing pesticides and also farming in ways that are compatible with nature while scaling up food production worldwide.

pocket insects east africaWhat is coming up for you next, following this award, and the publication of your book, Pocket Guide to the Insects of East Africa?

I am back in Kenya now after an amazing few weeks in London. I am very much looking forward to getting back into working with farmers and completing a number of other books including ‘The Bees of East Africa: A Natural History’, and ‘The Butterflies of Eastern Africa’ with Steve Collins. A book we launched digitally on pollinators is also due to be printed shortly, but can also be downloaded here.

The Pocket Guide to the Insects of East Africa is being very well-received here and abroad, and I have had hundreds of messages saying how exciting it is to finally have a book on insects for the region. On the work front I have just been appointed the Director of the Mpala Research Centre in Laikipia, Kenya and am looking forward to getting more entomology projects going there.

The Pocket Guide to the Insects of East Africa is available now from NHBS

Ecology gifts raise money for key UK conservation charities

Creature Candy mugsLizzie Barker is a working ecological consultant, and the creator of gift and homeware design company, Creature Candy. This newly-launched enterprise produces quality British-made products featuring hand-drawn illustrations of wildlife. As well as raising profits for the Bat Conservation Trust, the Bumblebee Conservation Trust, and Butterfly Conservation, Creature Candy also intends to raise awareness around the conservation of our endangered and protected wildlife. We asked Lizzie how it all came about:

What are your background and current interests as an ecologist?

I studied Zoology between 2007 and 2010 at Aberystwyth University and graduated with a first degree. I then went on to work at Darwin Ecology in September 2010 as a consultant ecologist and have been there ever since. It’s a great company to work for and my job is very varied, although I specialise in bats. I hold a Natural England bat and great crested newt survey licence, but I also survey for dormice, badgers and reptiles. I love the spring and summer months so I can get outdoors and explore the English countryside for wildlife.

Creature Candy printsWhat’s the story behind Creature Candy?

I wanted to take more of a proactive role in wildlife conservation and raise money for the charities that I work so closely with as a consultant. Two years ago (whilst sitting on my sun lounger in Portugal) I came up with the idea of Creature Candy. I not only wanted to raise money for the charities, but also raise awareness of Britain’s declining & protected wildlife species, and to inspire people to take active roles in conservation. It was also incredibly important to me to change perceptions of bats, which is why my first design was a beautiful, charismatic brown long-eared bat illustrated in its true form, not a typical black silhouette with red eyes and fangs! It was also a priority to produce all our products with a “Made in England” stamp on them, which I think is very appealing in today’s market dominated by mass produced imported products.

How do you find the time to be an ecologist and an entrepreneur?

It’s a very hard balance to achieve. On a typical day, I switch off from the ecological consultancy world at 5pm, make myself a cup of tea and re-enter my office as the Director of Creature Candy. I then usually work for a few hours each night on marketing, processing orders and accounting, before spending some time with my husband before bed. It’s very important to find time for a social life and to relax, and I’m sometime guilty of over-working. However my husband is very supportive and I couldn’t manage the business without that support.

Can you tell us more about the artwork, and what’s to come for the range?

Our illustrations are hand drawn by my friend Jo Medlicott. Jo is a very talented artist and draws inspiration for our designs from photography and the natural world. Our next design is likely to be a red squirrel or a bird and we would like to introduce aprons and fine bone china jugs into the product range. The rest is top secret!Creature Candy moth tea towel

Browse Creature Candy products at NHBS

The Week in Review – 12th December

Dragonfly
Dragonfly use neurological calculations which allow them to actually predict the movements of their prey. Photo by John Flannery.

News from outside the nest

This week…we learned why pufferfish build sandcastles and how it has taken us such a long time to observe this particular behaviour.

A study published this week in Nature showed us how dragonflies go beyond mere reflexive responses and actually predict the movements of their prey as they are hunting.

This short guide helped us to address the most common questions posed by “climate change challengers”.

We discovered the OceanAdapt website which lets members of the public search and download geographic data of more than 650 species of fish and invertebrates and track how these have changed over time…a hugely valuable resource for fishermen and scientists.

Camouflage in the natural world is incredibly common and well understood. However, a paper published this week by the Royal Society revealed a new kind of camouflage exhibited by the beautiful harlequin filefish: smell camouflage.

And finally…we were amazed by this extraordinary bird that disguises itself as a caterpillar.

New arrivals at the warehouse

Useful and fun: these cute animal head torches are a great stocking filler for young outdoor enthusiasts.

 

 

In search of Odonata: an interview with ‘Dragonflight’ author Marianne Taylor

National Dragonfly Week is fast approaching, so in our quest for things Odonata-related we interviewed Marianne Taylor – author of Dragonflight: In Search of Britain’s Dragonflies and Damselflies. The book documents the author’s adventures around Britain over two summers, in search of as many species as possible…

Dragonflight: In Search of Britain's Dragonflies and Damselflies jacket imageAs a keen wildlife watcher from an early age, what drew you in particular to the passion for dragonflies which led to the writing of this book?

I have always enjoyed seeing dragonflies and damselflies when I was out birdwatching, but it wasn’t until I began taking wildlife photographs seriously, in 2009-2010, that I started to really appreciate Odonata. Photography has made me want to look at all wildlife in new ways, and I found the forms of dragons and damsels very appealing. I also quickly developed an interest in taking flight photographs – initially of birds but that quickly expanded to include everything that flies. As relatively large targets, dragonflies make challenging but very satisfying subjects for flight photography. And my geeky need to catalogue all my images correctly forced me to take on the challenge of properly identifying every dragon and damsel that I photographed. Learning about identification went hand-in-hand with learning distribution, behaviour and other aspects of their ecology.

You have spent two summers immersed in dragonfly and damselfly-spotting – and have encountered the majority of established British species.  How has such a dedicated involvement over a set period added to your knowledge of the natural history of your subject? Any surprising discoveries? There must be nothing like prolonged in-the-field focus for gaining an intimate appreciation of their behaviour…

I’d certainly not say I’m any expert, but I have learned a huge amount in the last two years, both from books as I ‘revised’ my subject, and from first-hand observation. I can now answer most questions put to me about Odonata by interested laypeople. What has surprised me most is the complexity of their behaviour, in particular territorial and courtship behaviour. I was also absolutely fascinated to see damselflies apparently ‘mobbing’ large dragonflies – if that’s really what it was, that is a sophisticated response to a  dangerous predator that I would never have expected to see from an insect. I would love to learn more about Odonata intelligence. I am quite convinced that they have some awareness of, and interest in, humans! I would also love to know more about their behaviour prior to adulthood.

Do you have a favourite, or stand-out, Odonata encounter from the book?

The morning spent at Strumpshaw Fen is what comes to mind – the Norfolk Hawker (see gallery – below) that finally gave itself up after a very long search, quickly followed by the utterly charming female Scarce Chaser that was, hands down, my favourite individual dragonfly from the whole two years. Two new species in the space of half an hour, both of them allowing prolonged and close-range observation. I was also really impressed by the damselflies (I only mentioned one in the book but there were several) which I picked out of spiders’ webs – it was great to have the opportunity to study them very closely and watch how deftly they cleaned the spider silk from themselves before going on their way.

Have you continued your search this year?

I have continued to watch and enjoy Odonata on my local patch and elsewhere when weather has permitted. I was also lucky enough to visit Sri Lanka in April, where I photographed and identified as many of the amazingly diverse local Odonata as I could. I have not sought out any new species in Britain so far this year, but that may be about to change as a new colony of Red-veined Darters has been found not far from home, and I’m hoping to pay them a visit next week. I am also very much hoping that RSPB Rainham Marshes will draw in another Southern Migrant Hawker this summer/autumn and that I’ll get to see it this time!

And finally what would be your top tips for aspiring dragon/damsel enthusiasts who want to encounter more of these magnificent beasts for themselves?

Establish a garden pond – even a small one may well be used by the commoner damsels. Always walk slowly and check low-level waterside vegetation – this is where resting and newly emerged dragons and damsels may be found, and they will let you look at them much more closely than the more mature and lively ones will. Try to spend a couple of hours at least at a site, as most species behave differently at different times of day – for example, many only engage in courtship behaviour during the warmest hours of the day. Remember that the chaser, skimmer and darter dragons in particular are creatures of habit and like to visit the same perching spots again and again, so if you disturb one from its perch, just loiter nearby and it will probably come back. To improve your chances of seeing scarcer species, regularly check the sightings pages at the British Dragonfly Society’s website to check where and when they are being seen. Take photographs! It helps greatly with identification to have a static image you can study at length, and you can get excellent macro images from most point-and-shoot digital cameras these days.

Dragonflight available now from NHBS

Check out our recommended kit and field guides for successful dragonfly-spotting

Visit Marianne Taylor’s photography and wildlife blog, The Wild Side

Gallery of images from Dragonflight, taken by Marianne Taylor:

Ladybirds: an interview with Helen Roy, Ecological Entomologist at the BRC

Ladybirds jacket imageHelen Roy, Ecological Entomologist at the Biological Records Centre, is one of a team of authors who have been involved in the revision of this classic Naturalists’ Handbook.

I see from your professional history that throughout most of your career you have been involved in research with ladybirds. What originally drew you to these fascinating insects? Does it stem from a childhood interest?

Ladybirds are fascinating beetles. I can remember, as a small child, observing ladybirds as they emerged from their pupal cases on the vegetables in our garden on the Isle of Wight. Simply magical and I was entranced. Throughout my childhood I pursued my passion for natural history and have been so fortunate to continue to do so through my working life.

What do you feel are the biggest pressures on UK populations of ladybirds at present?

There are many factors that contribute to dynamics of insect populations. In recent decades the effects of environmental change on insect populations has been the focus of my research. It is widely recognised that invasive alien species, climate change and habitat destruction are all major players in the declines of many insects. Ladybirds are no exception. However, there are so many questions that remain unanswered. It is important that we address these questions with robust and rigorous research. We have so much to learn about the many subtle and complex interactions between insects, other organisms and the environment.

Ladybirds internal imageIn your book you state that winter is a very critical period for ladybirds and, during this time, they survive entirely on their own fat reserves. How severely do you think ladybird populations in the U.K. will have been affected by the very long and cold winter we have recently experienced?

Every year winter conditions result in the death of ladybirds – winter is a tough time for ladybirds in Britain. However, they have many amazing adaptations for surviving the adverse winter conditions. Ladybirds recently began to wake up from winter and I am reassured by the observations I am receiving from people across the country, through the UK Ladybird Survey.

The arrival of the Harlequin ladybird in the U.K. has obviously been a very big concern and has been covered extensively in the media. How serious a threat do you feel this is to our native species and are there any viable steps that could be taken to halt the spread?

The harlequin ladybird, Harmonia axyrdis, is an invasive alien species which is predicted to cause problems for a number of insects. It is a voracious predator and not only has the potential to outcompete other insects but also eats the other insects. The 2-spot ladybird, Adalia bipunctata, was a widespread and common species during my childhood. Not so now. I worked with a team of scientists, using the observations received through the UK Ladybird Survey from many, many people (an inspiring number of volunteers), to look at how the distribution of native ladybirds is changing in response to the arrival of the harlequin ladybird. A number of species appear to be declining and the 2-spot more than most. Unfortunately there is nothing that can be done about the harlequin ladybird but it will be interesting to continue to monitor this species and its interactions with other species in the coming years. Additionally the harlequin ladybird has demonstrated the effectiveness of people at recording alien species, and with the rate of new arrivals increasing rapidly people can play an extremely important role in surveillance and monitoring. I invite people to submit sightings through a recording form developed for species surveillance (including alien species) at the BRC.

Ladybirds plateFor any amateur naturalists who are interested in ladybirds and wish to get involved or help in some way, what would you suggest is the best way to do this?

I have been utterly inspired by the contributions that people from across the country make to the UK Ladybird Survey, and indeed many other wildlife surveys, by reporting the ladybirds they see wherever they may see them. Biological recording is a wonderful way to get involved with natural history. I often receive detailed observations from people who have been recording ladybirds in a particular location on a regular basis. This information is incredibly useful. Some people have even been recording the parasites they see attacking ladybirds. Natural history studies are fun, rewarding and an invaluable source of information. Professor Mike Majerus wrote the first edition of this book and we open the revised version with his inspiration: “Biological Science must stand on its foundations in basic observations of organisms in the field: what they do, when they do it, why they do it, and how they have come to do it.” Majerus, 1994

Do you have any plans for further books?

I have a passion for writing. As a teenager I contributed to the newsletter of my local natural history society – I enjoyed writing and I hoped that people would enjoy reading what I wrote. Writing, coupled with my love of natural history, remains very important to me. I will definitely be writing another book… perhaps the parasites of ladybirds, which are almost as charismatic as their hosts, would be worthy of attention?

Ladybirds available now

Buy a copy of Ladybirds

Record your ladybird sightings at the UK Ladybird Survey

Pick up your free copy of the new NHBS Ecology & Biodiversity Equipment Catalogue 2013 which includes survey kit for entomologists

Hibernation time – a quick guide to safe overwintering for your garden visitors

Beneficial Insect Box
Beneficial Insect Box - overwintering for ladybirds, lacewings etc.

As the days grow shorter and cooler, many animals are beginning to look for a safe place to spend the winter.

The best way to cater for most hibernating animals is simply not to tidy your garden too much – a pile of leaves at the back of a flower bed provides a great place for many insects as well as some larger animals (including hedgehogs) to bed down for the winter. However, if you would like to go a step further and provide the animals in your garden with tailor-made winter homes then NHBS can help. For insects, including many important pollinators, predators of garden pests, and species that are important food items for bats, frogs, and many small mammals, NHBS offers a range of nesting and overwintering boxes.

Hedgehog Hibernation Box
Hedgehog Hibernation Box

For popular garden visitors like hedgehogs, and amphibians such as frogs and toads please visit our amphibian and mammal nest box pages.

Bat populations have fallen dramatically in recent decades and one reason for this is the loss of suitable hibernation sites (or hibernacula). NHBS offers a wide range of tailor-made bat hibernation boxes including wooden boxes such as the Double Chamber Bat Box – and the new Triple Chamber Bat Box which we introduced last week here – as well as more durable woodcrete colony hibernation boxes such as the Schwegler 1FW.

Small Bird Nest Box
Small Bird Nest Box

Finally, spare a thought for those birds that do not migrate south to warmer areas. Although most of us only consider bird boxes as being useful during the summer in fact they are frequently used by roosting birds during the long cold winter nights. Putting bird boxes up in the autumn gives birds plenty of time to find them and increases the chances that your box will be used next spring.

Read our guide to choosing the right nest box for birds

Sample chapter from the forthcoming Royal Entomological Society Book of British Insects

RES Book of British Insects sample chapter

Due for publication in October (delayed from September – but it’ll be worth the wait!), here is a sample chapter from the Royal Entomological Society Book of British Insects, kindly supplied by publishers Wiley-Blackwell. 

Chapter 8 –  Order Odonata: the dragonflies and damselflies.

Pre-order The RES Book of British Insects today for £34.99 (reduced from £39.95). 

 

Offer ends 31/12/2011.

Pre-order today
Royal Entomological Society Book of British Insects jacket image

Book of the Week: Britain’s Plant Galls: A Photographic Guide

Continuing our selection of the very best titles available through NHBS:

Britain’s Plant Galls: A Photographic Guide

by Michael Chinery

What?

A photographic guide to the natural history and field identification of the “strange lumps and bumps that we call galls…” (Introduction, p5).

Why?

Plant galls are a great subject of research for the amateur naturalist. Bridging the sciences of botanyBritain's Plant Galls jacket image and entomology, they are a fascinating example of the symbiotic interdependence of nature, and the diversity of their size and appearance – from exquisitely attractive orb-like features and spiked swellings, to leaf blisters and discolourations – gives the interested naturalist a satisfying range of study.

The reader is taken on a guided tour of the galls arranged according to their host plants for ease of identification, and there are over 200 detailed colour photographs of the commonest galls to be found among Britain’s 1,000 species. The interaction between insect and plant which results in the gall is briefly described in each case, and the book contains a general introduction to the subject.

Who?

Michael Chinery is best known for his field guides to insects and other creepy-crawlies, especially those that occur in our gardens, and for his numerous books encouraging young people to explore and enjoy the countryside and its wildlife. Insects and wild flowers fascinated him from a very early age and this led inevitably to an interest in plant galls, with their intimate mix of plant and animal life. He joined the British Plant Gall Society soon after its formation  in 1985, and has been editing the Society’s journal, Cecidology, since 1990.

Available Now from NHBS


 

Exciting landmark publication from the Royal Entomological Society coming soon – pre-order now!

Royal Entomological Society Book of British Insects

by Peter C. Barnard

Royal Entomological Society Book of British Insects jacket imagePre-order The RES Book of British Insects today for £34.99 (reduced from £39.95).

The Royal Entomological Society (RES) and Wiley-Blackwell are proud to present this landmark publication, celebrating the wonderful diversity of the insects of the British Isles, and the work of the RES (founded 1833). This book is the only modern systematic account of all 558 families of British insects, covering not just the large and familiar groups that are included in popular books, but even the smallest and least known. It is beautifully illustrated throughout in full colour with photographs by experienced wildlife photographers to show the range of diversity, both morphological and behavioural, among the 24,000 species. All of the 6,000 genera of British insects are listed and indexed, along with all the family names and higher groups. There is a summary of the classification, biology and economic importance of each family together with further references for detailed identification. All species currently subject to legal protection in the United Kingdom are also listed… [read more]

Publication scheduled for September 2011.

Offer ends 31/12/2011.

Pre-order today

Four great books for wildlife gardeners

With wildlife conservation high on everyone’s agenda, here are some recommendations to introduce you to the natural diversity of your garden, and help you to create a haven for wildlife on your doorstep:

Four great books for wildlife gardeners

Guide to Garden Wildlife, by Richard Lewington, is a field guide to all the wildlife you might expect to encounter in the garden – from mammals, birds and insects to invertebrates and pond life. The species descriptions are full of useful detail, and Lewington provides the intricate illustrations that make this a real treasure of a handbook. There are informative sections on garden ecology, nest-boxes and bird feeders, and creating a garden pond.

Gardening for Butterflies, Bees and Other Beneficial Insects, by Jan Miller-Klein, homes in on practical techniques for encouraging insect diversity in your garden. A large-format tour through the seasons, with additional sections on tailored habitats, and species-appropriate planting, this beautifully photographed guide is perfect for every bug-friendly gardener looking to provide a good home for the full range of insect life.

RSPB Gardening for Wildlife: A Complete Guide to Nature-friendly Gardening, by Adrian Thomas, is a fantastic encyclopaedic introduction to how best to provide for the potential visitors to your garden, while maintaining its function for the family. A species-by-species guide to the ‘home needs’ of mammals, birds, insects and reptiles is followed by a substantial selection of practical projects, and helpful hints and appendices, to get your garden flourishing – whatever its size.


Dr Jennifer Owen’s Wildlife of a Garden: A Thirty-year Study, is a rare and illuminating book, in which is recorded – in scrupulous detail – the evidence of dramatic changes in populations in a single suburban garden in Leicester over a thirty-year period. An abundance of beautifully presented data, discussed in the context of wider biodiversity fluctuations, is balanced with numerous colour photographs, illustrations, and descriptive natural history of the residents of the garden. Modest in one sense, but unbelievably grand in timescale – and in its completeness – the rigorous effort and expertise that have been applied to the task of collecting and interpreting these data make this study a real one-off in the field of natural history writing.